Linear B Exam and Awesome News

It took me a minute to figure out how to put two unrelated things into simple and relevant title; turns out English has a nifty word for doing just that: ‘and’.

Anyway, I’m going to start with the latter first, because it’s definitely cooler than Linear B: I got full funding to Villanova + a Stipend!!!!!!!1!1 (I’m so happy I can’t type properly!). So yeah. I’ve been bouncy and giddy about this since last night. Walking into one’s room after a celebratory-post-exam night out with friends to find that Villanova is giving me lots of funding is pretty much the best way to end a day.

The stipend comes in the form of a graduate assistantship, which means the Classics department will employ me as their glorified bitch. I couldn’t be happier! Talk about a tri-fold blessing: tuition waiver, stipend, and work experience. Life is awesome.

Anyway, that’s the super exciting part of my day. The other part of my day was dominated by my Linear B exam. A brief explanation of Linear B for the non-initiated:

Up until about 1953, our records of the existence of the Ancient Greeks only went as far back as Homer (about 800-700 BC, depending on who you talk to). Around the turn of the last century, a man named Heinrich Schliemann decided that he wanted to see if Homer’s Troy was a real place. Using textual clues from the Iliad, he located a place called Hisarlik in the north west of modern Turkey. He started digging, and did indeed find a city that matched the description we have of Troy, complete with evidence of a battle and destruction by fire.

Schliemann also did some digging around in the rest of the Aegean – specifically Mycenae: the place the Greek general Agamemnon (who led the troops in the Trojan War) was to have come from. While he was digging in Mycenae, he found some tablets with a weird linear writing system on it (see where I’m going with this? It was the writing system we call Linear B! Though Shliemann just sort of ignored them…). Later, other archaeologists found lots and lots of these tablets in other cities as well; Pylos (western Arcadia) and Knossos (Crete) produced the most.

Unfortunately, no one could read them. At least, not until a young architect named Michael Ventris came along and deciphered them (with some help from John Chadwick at Cambridge). Michael Ventris was convinced until almost the very end that these tablets absolutely could not be Greek. However, his intuitions proved wrong: he came across a tablet in which the symbols, if they were Greek, would very accurately describe the differences between the ideograms on that tablet.[1] When he started applying Greek to other tablets, he found they all made sense. The conclusion was unavoidable: this writing system represented ancient Greek,[2] and dated the arrival of the language in Greece to about 700 years earlier than anyone had thought previously. Because of Michael Ventris’s work on Linear B, we know that Greek dates to about 1400 BC (a date even more hotly contested than Homer), and not 800 BC. If you’re a classicist, this is absolutely HUGE, and is why the Linear B tablets are exciting.

I say exciting. The history surrounding them is, but the contents are almost exclusively administrative. Which means that I sat in an exam room yesterday reading ‘X person from X place: 30 male sheep; Y person from Y place: 27 female sheep and 20 male sheep for a total of 47 sheep’. However, the layout of the exam was cool. It was divided into 3 parts: part 1 was reading line drawings of tablets, part 2 was reading photographs of tablets, and part 3 was reading a cast of a tablet. It felt like I was doing real live practical field work! Also we had flashlights and magnifying glasses.

Here are some pictures of tablets:

1. For the record, the transcription in the image is my own. I had difficulty reading a few of the symbols on the screen, and my Greek is so rusty that I couldn’t tell you what any but the most basic words are supposed to be (so I wasn’t able to use that knowledge to inform my transcription).

2. Didn’t know where to stick this, so in the footnote it goes! Linear B is a syllabary. We knew this before there was a decipherment based on the size of the inventory of signs. However, it also makes use of ideograms (as Dr. Rupert Thompson makes a point of mentioning in his lectures, these are not logograms because they cannot function within the syntax of a sentence. They are separate entities.) It was specifically the correspondence between word and matching ideogram that indicated that the language must be Greek.

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